Rising Ground to Expand the Role of Foster Parents in Supporting Both the Child and Family to Speed Up Reconciliation

Parents and kids having fun in living room

Rising Ground, a leading human services provider in New York City, is piloting a new practice in which parents and foster parents will co-parent a child while the child is in foster care, announced Alan Mucatel, CEO of Rising Ground, today. He noted that similar programs in other states have shown that shared parenting reduces stress for children in foster care, speeds family reunification, and enhances the family’s ability to stay together after a child returns.

“Our goal is to make co-parenting the standard practice for every family supported by our Family Foster Care program,” he said. Incorporating co-parenting in our services will change how Rising Ground has traditionally worked with foster parents, who can now play an even greater role in helping a family. We are looking to transform the role of foster parent so that they contribute to more successful reunification with the child’s family.” Mucatel pointed out that foster parents will receive additional training and be treated as partners in supporting families. 

There are several reasons why providers should be encouraged to make greater use of foster parents in family foster care. First, parents can more easily relate to their child’s foster parent than to a child welfare worker. Second, as co-parents, the child’s family and foster parents interact with each other several times a week or even daily—far more frequently than parents meet with child welfare professionals.

“For children, a co-parenting approach means that their parents continue to be closely involved in their day-to-day world,” Mucatel explained. In conventional foster care, parental contact is all too often limited. In a co-parenting practice, parents are encouraged to communicate frequently by telephone and FaceTime®-like apps. Parents can read bedtime stories to their children; foster parents can call mom with questions about the child. Furthermore, the child is less likely to feel a divided loyalty between the child’s parents and foster parent.” 

Establishing a co-operative relationship 

At present, the co-parenting pilot is in a six-month planning phase, during which time Rising Ground will develop a detailed protocol and hire a co-parenting facilitator—a clinician with marriage and family counseling experience—to guide the parent and foster parent’s relationship. The idea is to bring the parent and foster parent together within days of a child’s placement in the foster home. At that point, parents may still be angry that their child was removed from the home. 

“Co-parenting may not come naturally, and it will take time to develop trust, but the investment in building a close relationship between parents and foster parents will pay dividends for years to come,” explains Amiee Abusch, Vice President of Family Foster Care and Adoption at Rising Ground. “The bond between child and parent will remain strong. The parent will develop parenting skills and confidence.” 

The two-year pilot program is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Redlich Horwitz Foundation, whose mission is to improve the child welfare system in New York. Sarah Chiles, executive director, noted that: “We’re thrilled that Rising Ground is prioritizing a culture of shared parenting and collaboration between the family of origin and the foster parent. We are really hopeful that this will demonstrate a successful approach to expediting family reunification for the rest of the state.” 

Chiles continued “We have to change the system so that parents can remain highly engaged in the parenting of their children, and so that they can benefit from the relationship forged with the foster parent. All of us as parents can learn from other parents.” 

About Rising Ground

Rising Ground, which changed its name last year from Leake & Watts to more accurately reflect its full scope of services, is a leading nonprofit human services organization, currently operating more than 55 programs at more than 50 different sites across all New York City boroughs and Westchester County, and employing a workforce of 1,800 people. Daily, it provides children, adults, and families with the resources and skills needed to rise above adversity and positively direct their lives. It has won the prestigious New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Award. 

Founded as an orphanage in 1831, Rising Ground has been at the forefront of supporting evolving community needs and has become a leader in utilizing result-driven, evidence-based practices. Today, the organization’s work is a positive force in the lives of more than 25,000 individuals. For more information, visit RisingGround.org. 

Social Work Research Sparks Calls for Change in Adoption, Options Counseling Process

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

A new study by a Baylor University researcher gives voice to women who have placed a child for adoption and suggests changes to the options counseling process and policies that guide agencies and other adoption professionals.

“There wasn’t paperwork. There wasn’t counseling. There was, like, no requirement for, ‘OK, we have to explain X, Y, Z to you.’ It was basically, ‘OK, well, here’s some life books and call us when you have the baby,’” said one birth mother, quoted in the study.

“Nobody ever asked me what I wanted to do,” said another.

For the past two years, Elissa Madden, Ph.D., assistant professor in Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, led a team of researchers who surveyed, interviewed and analyzed the responses of birth mothers who had placed a child for adoption and adoption professionals who work with expectant parents. The two-phase study was funded by The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Lynn Franklin Fund and conducted in partnership with the School of Social Work at The University of Arlington.

“We were very intentional about this study from the very beginning,” Madden said. “We wanted to make sure that we would be able to capture different perspectives – birth mothers who have lived this experience as well as adoption professionals who work with expectant parents each day and understand that side of the process.”

The first phase of the study (released in November 2016), provided survey results and quantitative analysis of 223 birth mothers who had placed a child for adoption within the past 25 years, as well as 141 professionals who help counsel and facilitate adoptions.

This second phase provides a deeper qualitative analysis based on interviews with 28 birth mothers and 20 adoption professionals.

“Perhaps one of the most sobering findings was the fact that several of the birth mothers indicated that they did not fully understand the impact that this decision would have on every aspect of their lives from that point forward, including their relationships with their family, friends, their future spouse and other children they would have,” Madden said.

This latest phase of the study released by The Donaldson Adoption Institute include the following key findings:

• Many of the birth mothers expressed concerns of being judged and feelings of shame stemming from their pregnancies. For some mothers, the sense of shame stemmed from religious beliefs primarily surrounding having had premarital sex as well as the idea of being an unwed single mother.

• It was common for birth mothers to express concern about their lack of financial stability during their pregnancies. Financial concerns were often cited as reasons why birth mothers first considered, and ultimately elected, adoption.

• Many birth mothers experienced a lack of social and emotional support during and after the pregnancy and after the adoption was finalized. This lack of support often manifested when people in their lives avoided talking about the pregnancy or the adoption.

• Adoption professionals reported the use of different terms to refer to parents experiencing a crisis pregnancy who are seeking information about adoption. Slightly more than half of the adoption professionals indicated that they prefer the term, “expectant parent.” Other adoption professionals indicated that they prefer the term, “birth parent.”

• Much of the information that adoption professionals reported discussing with new expectant parents focused on adoption-related concerns rather than full consideration of all of the parents’ options. Less than half of adoption professionals specifically mentioned discussing information related to parenting their child or methods for helping expectant parents’ problem-solve how this might occur.

• Despite the confidence that the professionals reported feeling about their ability to work and communicate with expectant parents, most offered suggestions that would help them strengthen their practice. More than half of the adoption professionals called for additional training on grief and loss related to relinquishment.

“While some of the women we interviewed had very positive experiences during their decision-making and relinquishment process, others indicated that the information and support that they received from the agency or attorney was insufficient to help them fully consider their options and make the best choice for them and their child,” Madden said. “For these birth mothers, the decision to place their child has had a lifelong impact on them and is one that they greatly regret.”

One birth mother quoted in the study said she felt pressure to sign papers immediately after having the baby.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I can tell you right now, if the lawyer hadn’t shown up in my room when I was in kind of a haze from giving birth, I don’t know if I would’ve signed those papers. I should’ve had time.”

As part of the study, the researchers made several policy recommendations, which include:

• Mandate adoption agencies and adoption attorneys to develop and/or provide free access to pre- and post-relinquishment services for expectant and birth parents. These services should include individual and family counseling provided by a licensed clinical professional.

• Mandate that adoption agencies and adoption attorneys must provide expectant parents with a standardized, informed consent that details the possible outcomes associated with relinquishing parental rights to a child for adoption, as well as potential outcomes that the child may experience.

• Increase and standardize education for expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents about the strengths, limitations and legalities of post-relinquishment contact, including the rights of adoptive parents to decrease or eliminate contact in some states.

• Mandate biannual ethics in adoption continuing education for adoption professionals. This curriculum should address ethical challenges related to working with expectant parents, birth parents, extended family members, prospective adoptive parents and other adoption professionals. The curriculum should also emphasize the importance of options counseling, including full informed consent and access to supportive services.

Foster Care Youth: Using Technology to Provide Support

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Many social workers, other helping professionals, and foster care alumni have recognized the value in utilizing technology to support foster care youth. However, there is a gap in the scholarly research and development of technology solutions in this area.

In October of 2015, the Pritzer Foster Care Initiative sponsored a conference regarding “Web and Mobile app Solutions for Transition Age Youth.” at the conference, it was suggested that technology innovations for the foster care population should be amassed and made available via a single access point. At a similar event, the “Children’s Rights Summit” in December of 2015, they also discussed the myriad ways technology could be used to overcome legal barriers for foster care youth, families, and professionals.

The push for mobile applications, websites, and video games to engage and empower foster care youth is driven by the poor outcomes associated with “aging out”. Scholars define aging out, which occurs between 18 to 21 years old, as the process by which foster youth surpass the maximum age for foster care. Youth who leave foster care are presumed to join the ranks of: the homeless, undereducated, unemployed, incarcerated, substance abusers, those with unwanted pregnancies, and victims of poor credit and identity theft. 

According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analyse and Reporting, the number of youth who aged out of foster care during 2013 was 238,280. The racial/ethnic breakdown of these youth was: white 45% or 106,487; black 24% or 56,053; Hispanic 20% or 48,661; and Bi-racial or multiracial 6% or 13,889.

National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) captures data in the following areas for foster care youth aged 17: financial, education, relationships with adults, homelessness, high-risk behaviors, and health insurance access. The data revealed that 28% of those youth were either: employed full or part-time, received job training, social security, educational assistance, or other social supports.

Additionally, 93% of the youth reported participation in educational programming, 93% denoted having a healthy relationship with at least one adult, 16 % reported being homeless at some point, 27% replied having a referral for substance abuse counseling, 35% indicated being incarcerated at some time, 7% reported an unplanned pregnancy or fatherhood, and 81% reported having Medicare coverage.

These figures do not evoke a brilliant future for those departing foster care. For this reason, social workers have become innovators by melding technology and research into mobile applications, websites, and video games that meet the needs of foster care youth. Some of the promising technology available are as follows:

  • Bay Area Legal Aid partners with the Youth Law Center and the Public Interest Law Project to provide trainings in foster care benefits and advocates for foster care youth.
  • Beyond ‘Aging Out’: An MMOG for Foster Care Youth is a gaming platform and support network for foster care youth.
  • Foster Care to Success (FC2S) has influenced public policy, volunteer initiatives, and programs for older foster youth.
  • Foster Club is an online resource providing peer support and information for current and former foster youth.
  • Focus on Foster Families is a mobile app providing video interviews with foster youth and caregivers sharing experiences, and expert legal, education, and child welfare advice.
  • iFoster is an online community offering resources, technology, tutoring, eyeglasses, job opportunities, and a digital locker for foster youth to secure personal information.
  • Kids Help Phone is a Canadian-based website providing 24/7 counselling and information services for children and youth.
  • KnowB4UGo is a mobile application connecting foster youth with people, places and programs that support the aging out process.
  • National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Mobile App (NFCAD) provides search information, including location and key contacts, for organizations, groups, agencies, and experts across the child welfare profession
  • Ratemyfosterhome.com is a mobile app designed to garner information about foster homes and foster care experiences in real-time.
  • TeenParent.net is a website offering information, resources, and a blog to support foster youth who are expecting or parenting and their caregivers.
  • Think of Us is an online platform to support foster youth, foster/adoptive parents, and social services.
  • Pathos game is a puzzle and fantasy video game created by FixedUpdate. As the main character, Pan, explores new worlds and makes new friends, players experience some of the emotions of children in the foster care system. FixedUpdate hopes that Pan’s adventures will connect with people inside and outside of the foster care system. The game, Pathos, will be available on the iTunes Store and Google Play Store in 2016.
  • Persistence Plus engages and motivates college students through a mobile platform that uses transformative behavioral interventions.
  • Sortli is a mobile application that provides information, step-by-step guides and support. Sortli gives you 7 paths toward independence to include identity, relationships, a place to live, health, finances, education and employment, and living skills.
  • Ventura County Foster Healthlink (FHL) is a new website and mobile application that provides foster parents and caregivers with health information about children in their care. The goal is for information to be shared electronically among the care team to better meet the needs of the children.

These are only a fraction of the technologies available to assist foster youth. Many people in the public and private sector are unaware that social work professionals are leading the way in the research and design of high tech for foster youth.

Social worker Ruby Guillen of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has developed the following apps: (1) an app to report and prevent child sex trafficking, (2) an anti-bullying app, (3) a foster care placement app, and (4) an app for risk assessment of neglect and child abuse. Guillen was inspired by her passion for technology and her experience as a social worker. Guillen and her colleagues developed these apps at two hackathons sponsored by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Although, the apps are not readily available, they foreshadow trends for the future social work practice.

Jay Miller, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, understands the gaps in support that exist in the child welfare system. Dr. Miller has asked for backing to create and assess a mobile app to support foster care youth in transition. This research is being conducted in the Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky area.

He states that, “a foster kid will turn 18 and there’s some kind of expectation that they’ll be able to function in a way that other kids who are never in foster care don’t have the capacity to function or make big decisions at 18. We expect foster kids to do that.” He further adds that, “With child welfare in general and with foster care specifically, the problems that plague these systems they are community problems. It’s not just a someone problem. It’s an everyone problem” Miller suggests an ideological change in people’s perceptions about foster care. “We need to look at it as a service for people in need. It is a solution. Dr. Miller’s work will continue to bring the barriers to success for foster youth to the forefront. 

Innovative technology solutions have been developed to address systemic issues in the foster care system and to sustain foster care youth in general. These mobile apps, websites, and video games meet immediate needs allowing foster care youth to focus on future goals. There are a plethora of resources accessible to equip foster care youth in their transition into young adulthood.

By shifting the focus from data that exposes the many apertures of the current system to programs that produce confident and successful young adults, our outlook becomes much broader. Developing thoughtful products and tangible services for foster care youth can produce more positive outcomes.

Youth in View: Providing An Engaging Continuum of Care

Youth in View is a not-for-profit child-placement organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of youth by providing a continuum of care through foster care, adoption, post-adoption, unplanned pregnancy intervention and residential treatment services. Located in Texas, founders Sandra and Doug Umoru opened Youth in View in an effort to assist parents in residential treatment facilities who children entered into the foster care system.

Over 3 million reports of child abuse are made every year in the United States with 1 in 4 girls being sexually abused before her 18th birthday. These statistics highlight the severity of abuse facing young people and the need for a proactive intervention to deal with the impact of abuse.

Image Credit: Youth in View
Image Credit: Youth in View

Youth in View bases itself on partnership working to share responsibility and accountability for those who cannot take care of themselves. With four main goals at its center, Youth in View help prepare youth for permanent placement, provide positive family environment encouraging growth and development, provide opportunities to participate in activities outside of an institution, and carefully matching families with children in order to maintain stability.

In some aspects of social work and other fields, reaching people can sometimes be challenging. With first-hand experience of what fostering is like, Sandra and Doug found compassionate and creative ways to work with parents who had no idea what was happening to their child in the Child Protective Services system.

As a plan of care, Youth in the View involve service users in the process while allowing their children to contribute to the policies impacting them. This element of social justice and personalization on both the macro and micro level is often overlooked within the child protection system.

While Youth in View aims to prevent child abuse, it is sometimes difficult when there is not as much support as hoped. Sandra feels there is not enough attention given to child abuse, with it instead being just something that people talk about on banners of campaigns. There needs to be a more practical and engaging intervention in order to support organizations like Youth in View which are not supported by the broad Child Protective Services system. Despite the difficult barriers, Sandra are Doug are determined to make a difference even more so since opening the doors at Youth In View in 2000.

Saundra and Doug Umoru, Founders of Youth in View
Saundra and Doug Umoru, Founders of Youth in View

This positive and heart-warming approach to practice shows that change can be accomplished in even the hardest of circumstances. Sandra and Doug are committed to making a change even with sometimes minimal support from the wider system. Social networking is filled with photos of abused children with the only message being ‘Share if you think this is wrong’. Whilst this increases awareness, a more practical proactive response is needed in order to tackle child abuse but also to help empower children.

Youth in View host training each month in order to provide parents with the right resources and support to raise a child.  Sandra and Doug argue that buying a child toys or being a consistent and caring adult in their life can make all the difference to a child.

The transformation of a child from someone who is withdrawn to someone full of happiness is the best reward any service provider could hope for. Any progress helps to show them that they are one step closer to seeing the light at the end of a very dark and scary tunnel.

Empowerment is a key value promoted at Youth In View, and it is important to provide opportunities for growth. ‘The Lab’ is a space for children to talk about any issues or abuse, and it teaches children how to use their pain positively in an empowering way rather than succumbing to the instinct to run from their experience. By encouraging children to deal with the abuse they suffered, it reduces the negative impact it could have on their adult life.

As a result of Sandra’s own childhood experiences, she empathizes with children in her care by helping them to walk into empowerment and embrace the moment they stopped running. Sandra says that she wants ‘for them to leave Youth in View knowing they’re not victims, but they are victors.

Why Co-opting Transracial in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic

FILE - In this July 24, 2009, file photo, Rachel Dolezal, a leader of the Human Rights Education Institute, stands in front of a mural she painted at the institute's offices in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Dolezal, now president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, is facing questions about whether she lied about her racial identity, with her family saying she is white but has portrayed herself as black. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios, File)
Rachel Dolezal, a leader of the Human Rights Education Institute, stands in front of a mural she painted at the institute’s offices in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios, File)

This past week the world took to social media to dissect the events surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the former president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter who came under heavy scrutiny for falsely representing herself as black. As part of this real-time discussion, the term transracial is being co-opted to describe Dolezal identifying as black despite being born white.

As members of the adoption community — particularly those of us who identify as transracial adoptees — we are deeply alarmed by the gross mischaracterization of this term. We find the misuse of transracial, describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of “blackness” in order to pass as “black,” to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.

Transracial is a term that has long since been defined as the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents. The term most often refers to children of color adopted by white families in the Global North, and has been extensively examined and documented for more than 50 years by academics and members of the adoption triad: adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents.

Dolezal and others have perpetuated the false notion that a person can simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity. As extensive evidence-based research and first-person narratives have shown, we do not live in a so-called “post-racial society.” Damaging forces like racism make it virtually impossible for those with black or brown bodies to simply “put on” or “take off” race in the same or similar manner that Dolezal has employed. For transracial adoptees, navigating and negotiating the racism in our families, schools, and communities is a regular and compulsory part of our lives.

We also join others who have raised concerns about the misappropriation of the word “trans,” and the analogy made between Dolezal’s deception and the experiences of transgender people. For transgender people who have struggled to live their truths in the face of horrific violence and discrimination, we reject this flawed comparison and find it to be irresponsible and offensive.

As our collective cultural awareness and knowledge of racial and gender identities continue to evolve, it is clear that our understanding of them, as well as our understanding of the relationship between them, is outmoded and in need of better expression. The widespread and acute public response to Dolezal signals the pressing need for critical thinkers of all backgrounds to turn their attention to refining language and theory to better reflect our ever-changing lived experiences.

Writer and adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins recently wrote about Dolezal’s deception and how it derails meaningful conversations about adoption and race. As Rollins explains, the process of transracial adoptees asserting ourselves as people of color is often challenged by either white people or the very communities that mirror our racial and ethnic identities.

In Dolezal’s interview on NBC’s Today show, she justified passing as “black” in order to be recognized as her son’s parent. This questionable and even extreme approach to parenting goes against how families with transracial adoptees should actually tackle issues related to race. Scholars including Barbara Katz Rothman, Heather Jacobson, and Kristi Brian, among others, have examined how adoptive parents incorporate and support familial understanding of their children’s birth culture.

Adoption scholar Dr. John Raible affirms how a deeper consciousness of issues related to race may occur among white families with transracial adoptees. But this does not mean that white parents become people of color in the process. Instead, adoptive families need to create spaces for transracial adoptees to explore and construct their own identities.

Many of us in the adoption community have experienced the complex, tenuous, and life-long process of claiming our authenticity, making Dolezal’s claims and the current discussion all the more destructive.

We invite people to become active allies of transracial adoptees. It begins by listening. Actively listen to those who speak about and from the transracial adoption experience.

If you are an ally, we challenge you to examine the various ways that you appropriate our voices, cultures, and identities. Stand behind those of us who are working to dismantle this racist narrative that abuses, discredits, and erases the lives of transracial adoptees, and erases an entire field of academic inquiry. And use your privilege to lift up marginalized voices that need to be heard.

Finally, we encourage people to take time and explore the many articles, organizations, and experts who have worked on transracial adoption issues in order to educate themselves on this important current issue.

Co-opting the term transracial to describe Dolezal’s behavior exposes the deep denial and erasure of decades of research, writing, and art of transracial adoptees. That’s why we need everyone to stop trying to make this new definition of “transracial” happen. It’s not (and should not) be a thing.

Please direct all media inquiries to Kimberly McKee, PhD at mckee.kimberly@gmail.com.

Signed,

Kimberly McKee, PhD
Assistant Director/Advisory Council Member, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Grand Rapids, MI

Krista Benson
PhD Candidate, The Ohio State University
Adoptee Ally

Katie Bozek, Ph.D., LMFT
Transitions Therapy, PLLC
Grand Rapids, MI

Erin Alice Cowling, PhD
Hampden-Sydney College
Adoptee Ally

Martha M. Crawford, LCSW
Adoptive Parent, Psychotherapist
Author, What a Shrink Thinks blog

Sarah Park Dahlen, PhD
St. Catherine University
Adoptee wife, ally and researcher
Minneapolis, MN
www.sarahpark.com

April Dinwoodie
Chief Executive and transracial adoptee
The Donaldson Adoption Institute
www.adoptioninstitute.org

Erica Gehringer
Land of Gazillion Adoptees
Ypsilanti, MI

Shannon Gibney
Writer, Educator, Activist, Adoptee, Co-Chair, MN Chapter of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD)
Minneapolis, MN

Shelise Keum Mee Gieseke
Land of Gazillion Adoptees

Rosita González
Transracial Adoptee, Author, Artist, Lost Daughters Editor
Madison, WI

Susan Harris O’Connor, MSW
Practitioner, Educator
Author, The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee
National Solo Performance Artist of her Racial Identity Theory narrative
New England Regional Director of American Adoption Congress
Massachusetts

JaeRan Kim, PhD, LISW
Researcher, educator, and author of Harlow’s Monkey blog
Minneapolis, MN

Andy Marra | 홍현진
LGBT advocate and writer
New York, NY

Lisa Marie Rollins
PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley
Writer, Playwright, Researcher
Founder, Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora
Oakland, CA

Matthew Salesses
PhD Candidate, University of Houston
Author of The Hundred-Year Flood, Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity
Houston, TX

Stacy L. Schroeder
Adoptive Parent, Sibling of Adoptee, and Adoptee Ally
Executive Director/ President, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Camp Hill, PA

Dwight Smith
Transracial Adoptee
Pact’s Adult Adoptees & Foster Alums of Color Advisory Board member
Advocate/Mentor for Bay Area adoptees and foster youth of color

Julie Stromberg
Author, Editor
Lost Daughters, Board Member
Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights

Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston, MSS, LSW
Adoptee, Author, The Declassified Adoptee blog, Founder, Lost Daughters, Founder, Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights
Greater Philadelphia Area

Angela Tucker
Transracial Adoptee, Author, Speaker
www.closuredocumentary.com
www.theadoptedlife.com
Seattle, WA

Kevin Haebeom Vollmers
Executive Director, Gazillion Strong

Why We Should Care About Adoption Rehoming

“A sick thing”. “Human trafficking in children”. “A gaping loophole with life threatening outcomes”. These are just few of the ways experts, legislators and judges have named unregulated private transfers of child custody, a practice referred to as re-homing.

Private re-homing occurs when adoptive parents transfer the custody of a child bypassing official channels. In such cases, parental authority is transferred with a simple Power of Attorney to non-family members.

Very often these people are perfect strangers whose parenting abilities have not been screened by child welfare authorities or, worse, have been judged so poor that their biological children have been taken away by child protection services.

According to an investigation published by Reuters in 2013, hundreds of children are victims of re-homing in the USA every year. 70 percent of them are children adopted from abroad.

“Rehoming can be an appropriate change of placement for a child if it is done with court approval and with home study that look at the needs of the child and the child’s best interests,” said Stephen Pennypacker, a senior child welfare expert and current President of the Partnership for Strong Families, in an interview.

However, the problem with private rehoming is that it is not done with that oversight and the necessary background screening on the prospective placement. “This can lead to some pretty horrific consequences for children that are moved under those circumstances,” Pennypacker said.

One such case happened in Arkansas in 2014, when a six-year-old girl was sexually abused by a man who had obtained her custody via a private re-homing procedure. The case received intense scrutiny only last February as the media reported that the adoptive father who gave the little girl away was a state legislator, Justin Harris.

Arkansas has since then passed two laws to prevent this practice, becoming the fifth state to have regulated it. A few other states are slowly discussing bills to this effect, while no federal law regulates it.

In a court decision in the State of New York last December, Judge Edward W. McCarty III defined the practice “unmistakably trafficking in children” and called on the Legislature to amend domestic law to prohibit this “unsavory and unsupervised practice”.

This judgment came to no surprise to Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth. “Rehoming sounds like a positive experience that is looking at the best interests of the child, but actually it simply transfers a child to another person without any required review by child welfare, family judges, or other officials. So it could be easily a cover for trafficking in children.”

Other child experts echo the concerns about the risks that unregulated re-homing poses to a child’s wellbeing, although they do not consider re-homing as trafficking because parents do not move children to exploit them, but to get rid of them. “All under the table dealing on children’s matters entails risks of exploitation,” said Michael Moran, INTERPOL Assistant Director, Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation, in a phone interview. “Unregulated re-homing creates opportunities for sex offenders. If loopholes exist, sex offenders will use them.”

Reasons that push parents to resort to private re-homing vary from case to case. The most common explanation given by parents engaging in such a practice is that they feel overwhelmed by the behavioral problems of their adopted children. They also claim that the support they receive from child welfare authorities to deal with difficult adoption cases is inadequate. In another case, parents may fear to be charged with child abandonment if they seek to transfer custody to the state. Financial considerations may also play a role because certain states accept taking a child under their custody only on the condition that parents pay for the child’s care until a new adoption takes place.

Some state and federal authorities have acknowledged these problems and are trying to address them. State legislation has been adopted in Arkansas to strengthen post-adoption services and allow parents to give children back to the state’s care if they have exhausted the available resources – although no definition of what these resources are is provided. At the federal level, the US President’s 2016 budget contains a proposal that would guarantee federal funding for prevention and post-placement services.

Whether such initiatives will suffice to prevent rehoming is an open question, though, in particular as the practice remains largely lawless in the USA. So far, only five states – Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, and Wisconsin – have adopted legislation to prevent re-homing. Five other states – Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina – are discussing bills to this effect.

“This kind of regulatory void is enormously concerning,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health. “Clearly, we need much tighter regulation and more supervising and support to families.”

As Arkansas Outlaws Re-homing, Other States Might Follow Suit

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Re-homing, a practice which consists in transferring a child’s custody to non-family members without the oversight of child welfare or judicial authorities, became a nationwide issue after Reuters published an investigation in September 2013. The 18-month investigation revealed that parents used Internet discussion groups to give away their adopted children and sparked heightened debate across the country. In May 2014 the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sent a Memorandum to state child welfare authorities encouraging an overhaul of legislations to “adequately address the implication of re-homing” and putting an emphasis on post-adoption services.

So far, only five states – Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin – have regulated it. Since February, lawmakers in Maryland, Nebraska, New York and North Carolina are discussing bills to address re-homing.

At the beginning of April, Arkansas became the fifth state to have regulated the practice when its Governor, Asa Hutchinson, signed two bills to this effect.

The first law, signed on April 2, ensures post-adoption services to families and the screening of prospective guardians. The second, signed four days later, makes re-homing a felony punishable by up to five years of prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.

The laws were speedily adopted in the wake of a dramatic re-homing case which involved Arkansas State Rep. Justin Harris. In February, Harris admitted to have given away two adopted daughters bypassing child welfare authorities. The eldest child, 6 years old, was eventually sexually abused by the man to whom Harris had transferred the custody.

This was the tenth re-homing case in two years occurred in Arkansas that the local child welfare authorities were aware of.

“The story in Arkansas and other stories that have been in the media recently about re-homing tells us that many adoptive parents are struggling to meet the emotional or behavioral needs that come out after they have adopted a child,” said JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in an interview.

One study reported that only 26 percent of adoptive families in the United States felt they received quality mental health services. Parents engaging in re-homing often mention the lack of support as a reason for their actions.

Acknowledging the high vulnerability of children in rehoming cases and the inadequate support available to families overwhelmed by children with behavioral problems, Chang underscored the federal government intention to change the situation. “This is an important policy change that really needs to happen. The President 2016 budget contains a proposal that would guarantee federal funding for prevention and post-placement services.”

The proposal Chang refers to involves $587 million over the next ten years to help state agencies offer adoptive parents crisis counseling and other support. “Maybe States will not have all of the prevention and post-adoption services ready at year one. But over time if there is a dedicated federal funding stream that is going to support these types of activity, States will continue to build their capacity to provide them,” Chang said.

Stephen Pennypacker, a senior child welfare expert and President of the Partnership for Strong Families, welcomed the federal proposal as a rare intervention on the front and back-end of child protection services. “These services are integral to prevent abuse from ever occurring. Some adoptive parents legitimately reach our for assistance and try to get help but then, because they are either unable to get it or the help that they access is inadequate, they turn to self-help remedies like re-homing. When an adoptive family starts to struggle we need to have something available to them rather than having to turn to the Internet or some other ways to make a child placement”.

Some doubt whether the proposed funding alone can prevent re-homing. “Enhanced support for adoptive families is certainly positive,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health. “Whether it will have any impact on re-homing is not clear however. This will depend on targeted risk assessment and careful monitoring of at risk families and adoptive children that may well tend to fall under the radar normally.”

A leading expert in the field of children’s rights, Professor Bhabha stressed the importance of more progressive policies in the whole adoption system, in particular as regards international adoptions, and the need to improve the scrutiny of parents’ suitability and children’s adoptability. “Even before you get to the re-homing, if you look at the homing there are a lot of practices that are very troubling. Families which are not well qualified to be adopting are allowed to adopt. Much more supervision is needed.”

Progress in U.S. legislation and policy might have positive repercussions in Canada too, where cases of private rehoming, including across the border, have occurred in the recent past. “The U.S. is providing needed leadership that Canada should emulate to develop a more serious incentive program and also ensure better surveillance and monitoring of children’s rights,” said Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth. Warning about the risks that re-homing can pose to children, she advocated a stronger focus on children’s rights and pointed at European initiatives “which appear to be more understanding of the possibility of systemic exploitation”.

In Europe, where no re-homing case has been reported, states are required to act in the best interests of the child in all child matters. In Germany, a federal country, “nobody can relinquish his parental rights without the authorisation of youth welfare and judicial authorities. Post-adoption services and supervision are obligatory,” said Tanja Schwarz, a German family lawyer.

Officials at the Government Accountability Office confirmed that they expect to publish a study this fall on state and federal laws governing this practice.

When asked whether there is a need for further federal intervention to ensure uniform laws on re-homing across the country, Chang said that “the current definition of abuse and neglect is broad enough to include re-homing. It is up to the State to enforce both criminal and dependency laws.”

Conceived from Rape: Miss Pennsylvania’s Story Through a Social Work Lens

In a recent interview with Today.com, Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, spoke candidly of her conception from rape. According to Gatto’s biography, her then ninteen-year-old mother was raped at knife-point walking home from work.  Gatto’s mother intended to place her for adoption, feeling as though a “traditional family” could better care for her. Her family intervened and helped Gatto’s mother raise her. The beauty contestant desires to use her campaign as Miss Pennsylvania and as a Miss USA hopeful to spread awareness about sexual assault.

Valerie Gatto
Valerie Gatto

Gatto’s campaign has come under fire for its methodology. She is quoted encouraging women to avoid rape by being “present, to be aware of your surroundings.” Through a feminist and social work lens, this is immediately concerning. I won’t lie; I am a brown belt in karate and cross-trained in ground fighting–in part because being a woman makes me a target for violence. Regardless, national anti-violence campaigns should avoid at all costs implying women can and should prevent their own rapes when it is rapists who need to stop raping.

Embedded in Gatto’s public narrative and perhaps less apparent but incredibly important are implications for serving individuals conceived from rape. As a person conceived from rape who is connected to a broader community affected by this issue, I can attest to the prevalent societal gaps in a respectful and understanding approach to these individuals and their mothers. Social workers are in an advantageous position to be allies and close these gaps.

Social work’s strive to see those in the margins and validate their humanity is vital here. Individuals conceived from rape are commonly spoken of as though we do not exist. Perhaps this is what most compellingly draws me to Gattos’ narrative–she expects people to respectfully listen to her when respectful dialogue on this issue is not the media’s norm. Headlines broadcasting the abortion debate refer to us as “rape babies,” “children of rape,” or “children of rapists.”  I was mortified when “rape babies” became the source of a joke on The Daily Show. I cringe when those claiming to be “pro-choice” quickly abandon their resolve for unquestioned choice for women based on rape conception because it’s simply too easy to instead argue that being a mother to “rape baby” must be awful.

I once sat in a small diner on my lunch break when such a news feature flickered across the  TV adorning a bright orange stucco wall.  A lively abortion debate between patrons ensued as I stared at the ice floating in my diet soda.  “I don’t think women should get to have abortions” one man finally bellowed. “Unless it’s rape,” he clarified. “I mean, can you imagine what it is like to be one of those rape babies?” All at once I felt vulnerable–yet invisible.

Gatto’s mother “decided to raise Valerie with the help of God and her family” (source). It is difficult for people to imagine that individuals conceived from rape are loved or wanted by their families. When I reunited with my family of origin as an adult adoptee, friends and family were shocked that I was embraced and welcomed.  One friend said, “I am so glad she wanted to know you, considering the circumstances.”

As a social worker, valuing human relationships and approaching my work from a strengths perspective means I apply these principles to everyone and check my biases when I find myself coming to knee-jerk conclusions about someone’s family. I often remind people, I am a person; I am not what my biological father did.  Gatto’s narrative, my own, and those of many others I am privileged to know are an abrupt push-back to the deficit focused approach that we are nothing more “painful reminders” to families who cannot possibly love us.  Leaving our families unsupported, these assumptions pervade an unimaginable shame.

I regularly receive messages from biological and adoptive parents and from individuals conceived from rape, their children, and their spouses.  How can I tell my child the truth about her story without her feeling shame?…….My husband just found out about his conception; how can I help him deal with the shame he feels?……..Where are the support sources for victims and their children?–I can’t find any.  Shame is so isolating.

Gatto claims her mother would have placed her for adoption had her family not intervened and offered her support.  Here’s another bias that needs to be checked: adoption is not inevitable. Whether in Pro-Life or Pro-Choice circles, or debates between, rape conception is persistently spoken of as though there are only two choices: adoption or abortion. The bias that individuals conceived from rape can’t be loved by their families–that adoption is a way of getting rid of presumably  unwanted children–narrows choices women have to make about pregnancy and parenting.  Whether abortion, adoption, or parenting, survivors of rape are entitled to self-determination and support for their decision.

“Rape babies,” “painful reminders,” “rapist’s baby,” “unwanted”–what Gatto’s narrative reminds me of most is that we tell our stories best.  A few years ago, I discovered my own public narrative featured in a column of an Irish newspaper as a part of the contentious abortion debate in a country with a history of incredibly restrictive abortion policies. I was criticized for my stance on choice as someone who argues for women’s self-determination in health care and who maintains that my mother’s pregnancy choices, whatever they might have been, are none of my business.

When Gatto says she doesn’t share her story for self-promotion but to be an advocate for chance, I believe her. Regardless of how I feel about her approach to anti-violence advocacy, I have experienced and witnessed the shame disclosing conception from rape brings. This is not an easy story to tell.

When another columnist re-framed my story through a stereotypical lens, I was no longer the empowered woman I believed myself to be.  The columnist claimed I came to erroneous conclusions about my own story–that I failed to realize how lucky I was not to be aborted in order to be in the position of advocating for women. I ask you, which would you rather be: free to come to your own conclusions or treated as though your existence is shameful? When we do not honor individuals conceived from rape as the rightful narrators of their own life story, we miss out on everything we could know about supporting them.

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